The World According To Sonia

The World According To Sonia

US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on judicial activism, the court’s Catholic majority, growing up poor in the Bronx and her NO. 1 book, ‘My Beloved World’

By Kevin Uhrich 01/30/2013

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Overcast skies and chilling rain added an air of intrigue to what was supposed to be an otherwise uncontroversial interview with US Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was visiting Pasadena last week as part of a tour promoting “My Beloved World,” a touching memoir of growing up in the Bronx that’s reached No. 1 on The New York Times best seller list.

The lovingly written remembrance chronicles the many influences in Sotomayor’s early life — raised in an extended working-class Puerto Rican family and overcoming both the loss of her father and the difficulties of living with Type 1 diabetes, then going on to excel in academia at Princeton and Yale before ultimately rising through the legal profession to become President Barack Obama’s first appointment to the High Court in 2009.

Average citizens might not consider a Supreme Court justice visiting Southern California a big deal, but US Marshals apparently do, as they checked the 58-year-old Sotomayor into a five-star hotel in West Hollywood under an assumed name. Lucky to find a spot on Sunset Boulevard midday Friday, I sat parked on the world-famous street a few doors from the hotel for about a half-hour in my late-model KIA as the rain came down in fits and starts, scribbling last-minute notes and preparing mentally to meet my “contact,” a security agent in a tan-colored suit wearing a curly-wired earpiece who met me in the hotel lobby and accompanied me to an upper floor to meet the justice.

The cloak and dagger aspect of all this seemed a bit out of character from what I thought I knew about Sotomayor, the nation’s first Hispanic justice, an honor that is merited but not without some murkiness. Although the family of fellow New Yorker, Justice Benjamin Cardozo [1932-1938], was of Portuguese and Jewish descent, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials and the Hispanic National Bar Association consider Sotomayor the first Hispanic justice, according to newspaper clippings from 2009.

Just the same, Sotomayor remains the court’s third of four women members and one of its more politically liberal jurists, who is perhaps most famous for “saving baseball.” In March 1995, Sotomayor, then a Manhattan US District judge appointed by former President George H.W. Bush, issued a preliminary injunction against Major League Baseball, preventing it from implementing a new collective bargaining agreement with its players and using replacement players. Upheld at the appellate level, Sotomayor’s ruling ended the baseball strike of 1994. After that, the lifelong Yankees fan became a candidate for canonization by many in the supposedly liberal media.

Soon, after being checked out by security, any sense of apprehension I may have had disappeared as the justice greeted me as though I were an old friend, warmly welcoming me into the suite’s oversized bedroom for a one-on-one talk about her book, a consuming passion that’s been in the works since she’s been on the bench. In the discussion, we also talked her career and her thoughts on the direction of the current court, which some observers believe  — and best evidenced by the 5-4 decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” and the 5-4 ruling in favor of unlimited individual campaign spending in the Citizens United case — has never been more politically divided. This is a contention that Sotomayor strongly disputes.

Her trip to Southern California followed the swearing in of Vice President Joe Biden, to whom she administered the oath of office on Sunday, Jan. 20, as required by the Constitution. On that day, Sotomayor asked that the informal ceremony be performed early so she could make a book signing in Manhattan that afternoon, and Biden and his family reportedly gladly acquiesced. The following day, Martin Luther King Day, Sotomayor repeated the ritual in the formal inauguration gala staged for the public. Since then, the junior justice has been all over TV, even appearing on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” — all in an effort to pump the book. 

By early Friday afternoon, Sotomayor, dressed in a simple but elegant blue on white dress, her short, dark hair freshly combed for an event-filled afternoon and evening, was just finishing a phone interview while in the midst of preparing for a talk with KPCC’s Patt Morrison in Pasadena prior to a signing at Vroman’s Bookstore later that day when she took time out to speak with the Pasadena Weekly.

Congratulations on the book.

It’s the first time I had tried something that wasn’t legal. And it was such a joy to find that I could actually discover my literary side, not my legal side. And, as I do all things, I didn’t do it alone. I did it with the help of a lot of people, and it was wonderful to learn a new skill.

What was going through your mind as you were swearing in the vice president [on Jan. 21]?

I walked out with my colleagues, and I understand from the news that the president, as he was leaving the platform, turned around … and said, ‘This will be my last time.’ In juxtaposition, this was my first time, and I as I walked out and looked over the expanse of the National Mall, my breath just stopped. It was as though I couldn’t breathe, to see that many people assembled to participate in a national moment. It just sent a chill through me. And as I sat down, it became a surreal moment, and I have had many of them over the past few years … I’ve been on such an improbable journey, just each time it gets better and better. The Supreme Court, who would have ever imagined that? And [swearing in] the vice president? Equally as improbable, probably more improbable, making No. 1 on The New York Times book list. For a kid who had to teach herself how to write in college, that is a dream.

And had to learn English as a child …

And had to learn English when she was younger. That was a dream that I didn’t think was in the realm, not of possibility, but wasn’t even an option, not in my wildest fantasies.

You talk in the book about how you learned the power of dissent by beating up your younger brother (Dr. Juan Sotomayor). You didn’t beat up your brother, did you?

(Laughs) Oh, yes I did beat up my brother. (Laughs again) He’ll tell you, I really beat him up.

Certainly you have had some great challenges in your life: battling diabetes, losing your father at an early age and growing up with a single working mother, but I get the impression that you were still a happy kid, with this large family support system around you the whole time.

Well, no, that isn’t accurate. My earlier childhood, generally, was an unhappy one. You deal with an alcoholic father, and you deal with the early death of a parent, you deal with childhood diabetes — these are not minimal events in anyone’s life, and two of them, at least, are permanent; not growing up with a father and having a chronic disease that is an everyday part of life. They are challenges. Both of them present lifelong what is fair to call burdens, but also opportunities — opportunities to be either kept down by them or to choose to find some good from each. And I think that’s what this book is about; it’s to offer people my way of meeting those challenges and perhaps provide inspiration for others who face them, too, if not copy the way I did it, because no one can copy your exact path.

Perhaps I’m confusing happiness with something else because of the loving tone you use to describe the people in your life.

I think that’s part of the reason for writing this book, because I get very upset when I listen to or read about the treatment of the neighborhoods I lived in. It’s too frequently popular to look at neighborhoods like Fort Apache, where I spent my childhood, to just look at their negatives. It’s easy, because of the crime rate; they are drug infested, they are rodent infested areas, and the negatives are just so easy to talk about and to focus on. I wanted to focus on the people and the emotions and on the support they provided for each other, and to remind people that these are still communities facing huge challenges, but they are still communities. So my loving tone was to give insight to something deeper than the superficial.

Which brings me to my next question, about the values that developed in you through these experiences. How have they played a role in your decision-making on the Supreme Court?

The question that everyone asks, the question I was asked during my confirmation process (pause) … Every judge, every single one of us, comes with our own set of life experiences. When we pick judges, whoever that picking authority may be is looking at the professional experiences: Have you been a prosecutor? Have you been a defense attorney? What type of law have you practiced? Have you had government service or not, and in what form? The reason for valuing that is because there is a belief that if you had a very professional experience, that it brings value to the process of judging. But that’s no different than life experience, because the professional experience is interwoven with the life experience. If you are a judge who has worked in a state system, and you know the challenges that states are having to meet budgets, to structure processes that can deal with overwhelming numbers of cases, then you are going to be a judge who, when you think about a legal issue that’s before you challenging a state process, you are going to look at that question and not make your decision based on that, because that’s sort of like imposing your own personal experience as an outcome determinate. That’s not going to convince anybody. I write an opinion that says, ‘I know the answer because I experienced X, Y, or Z.’ No one is going to be persuaded. You’re not going to convince anybody that that answer is law, or what law commands. And no one is going to be convinced enough to follow whatever it is that you dictate the state has to do, or not do. But it gives you an opportunity to understand what the state’s argument means, to make sure that it is part of the discussion, and part of the consideration among the justices about what makes sense legally in terms of what you are doing. It is so hard to explain to the public, who really only look at what judges do as a bottom line. … They don’t understand that it’s not the decision alone that you are judging. It’s the process: How have the judges dealt with the argument? Did they miss it? Did they hear it? Did they at least try to account for it in explaining why they are doing X or Y? That’s how I think life experiences make a difference.

Supreme Court justices are said to fall into one of two camps: originalists, or those who derive literal meaning from the words of the Constitution, and judicial activists, or activist judges, which is how you have been described (the justice laughs). How would you describe your style of reasoning?

I’m a common law judge. I believe in deciding every case on its facts, not on a legal philosophy. And I believe in deciding each case in the most limited way possible, because common law judges have a firm belief that the best development of the law is the one that lets society show you the next step, and that next step is in the new facts that each case presents. So I don’t know what people mean by ‘judicial activism.’ But if you read my decisions and read the decisions, as opposed to the outcomes, and not judging the outcomes, but judging the reasoning, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. I’m talking about [the fact that] every one of my decisions looks at the facts of the case and tries to decide as narrowly as we can to answer the question presented. … I loathe these large pronouncements about cases that are not before us, and issues that are not before us, because I want to wait for those to develop. I am a common law judge — case by case, issue by issue. And, I’m very centrist on process.

You were raised Catholic, attended Catholic school, as did I … Doing a little research, I found that Clarence Thomas is Catholic, as are Justices Scalia, Alito, and I’m not sure about Kennedy, but I can guess …

He is. It’s 6 to 3.

I did not know that. So how has that experience, growing up Catholic, shaped your attitudes on such issues as capital punishment, abortion rights and same-sex marriage?

(Pause) … I know how it shaped me as a person. In fact, I was just talking with another journalist before you came, and I said to her that I think being a Catholic made me a better person. It taught me how to choose good over evil, and how to be a more caring human being. I don’t think it has translated into choices that I have made as a judge, because those are controlled by law. As a Catholic, you can have two views on capital punishment. You can think, let Caesar do what Caesar needs to do, and the law says you can impose capital punishment, so you impose it. You can [also] be a Catholic who says we can’t kill, we can’t kill babies and we can’t kill adults. If you let a decision be driven by your personal views, then you are not doing what a judge needs to do, which is enforce the laws of the society that you are in. But you can control your own behavior, and that is the choice that the church and God gives us — what kind of people are we going to be.

The court has been perceived to be divided, at least on a number of cases, the Affordable Care Act is one, Citizens United is another. Is the court more ideological now? Do you believe it is ideologically divided?

No. I think if you step away from our decision-making you will see the justices crossing whatever the public thinks their ideological lines are. Frankly, the reality is that I think the public has chosen to identify themselves with certain judicial approaches, and they almost believe that we follow them instead of them following the court and the court’s view of how to address issues, and it becomes quite interesting for me to watch, because I don’t see us doing what the public does, which is [asking], ‘What kind of candidate do I want to be?’ No justice thinks of him or herself in that way. They approach each case with a view of what they think is best and what the Constitution means, and how it can best be given effect. Obviously, you have nine men and women, each equally passionate about the work they do. That’s why you have nine; to ensure every viewpoint is expressed.

What do you see as the major benefit to the nation and the court with your appointment as the first Hispanic and the third of four women to the court?

(Long pause) … I hesitate, because I don’t see my appointment as a benefit. I think others may perceive it that way …


To the nation, not just to the court …

Yes, yes to the nation …

Don’t you see some symbolic value?

What I am trying to say is why do you think people take comfort in a judicial system? I think it is because they believe they are being judged, whether by juries or judges who are members of their society. I believe there is some comfort for people when they can look at a Supreme Court that is diverse. Diverse, just not in ethnic backgrounds and religious and [experiential] backgrounds, because I think it does give comfort in the process of judging when people can say I am being judged by my equals. To the extent that there have been large portions of our population as large as the Latino community, but people who have been migrants, people who have chronic diseases, people who have had backgrounds similar to mine, I think that brings them some sense of being part of the process and not an outsider looking in.

You speak in the book about accomplishing a lot of things that were only possible by taking small steps at a time. What do you mean by that and how have you applied that in your approach as a justice?

I’ll give you one tiny example. I think, but haven’t tracked it completely, that in my first couple of years on the bench, the number of pages that I wrote in opinions were much longer than ones I am writing now. I’ve been slowly learning how to be more concise and get to the point faster. Even something as small as that; sort of step by step, crafting and learning how to craft shorter and more powerful pieces. It is not something that comes automatically. That’s something, I think, you work at. So, I’ve been working at that, and I think if anyone bothers tracking that, they will see an improvement in that score. Not quite yet, but I’m beginning to be exposed in my cases to almost all the major constitutional questions that the court faces. There are new issues each day. The Affordable Care Act was a totally new issue for the court, but the principles underlying it had been rehearsed in prior cases I had been on. I think in another couple of years, I will have touched on almost all of the major constitutional areas. My very case was First Amendment, Citizens United, so I got baptized really quickly. My point is, although I had dealt with almost all of these areas as a court of appeals judge, most of my cases were applying principles that had been firmly established over the years.

Settled on.

Settled on. Now I’m dealing with knowing what the cutting-edge question are, and I think that I’m close to having touched on every one of them. So it’s a process of educating yourself. Each case that comes about, I have to go back and read all the major decisions again, because I’m looking at them in a new way. I’m looking at them for how other justices thought the best approaches to these issues were, selecting among their approaches and tweaking them to fit what I think makes the most sense in addressing the question in the way I think that precedence demands and the way the law guides you. But I have to find that way. None of court cases are black and white.

Last question …If you had some advice for that young Latino kid who’s just getting through school and thinking of quitting, or a young single mother who doesn’t know where to turn, what would you tell those kids?

Don’t let fear stop you. Don’t give up because you are paralyzed by insecurity or overwhelmed by the odds, because in giving up, you give up hope. Understand that failure is a process in life, that only in trying can you enrich yourself and have the possibility of moving forward. The greatest obstacle in life is fear and giving up because of it.


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